Pennsylvania Pride: Marriage Equality Comes To The Keystone State

Extending marriage to same-sex couples doesn’t affect churches at all. As long as we have a First Amendment, houses of worship will be free to determine who qualifies for their sacraments and who does not.

I am a native of Pennsylvania.

I’m proud of my home state. It has a fascinating history, beautiful mountains and some of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. (I’ll grant that the weather could be better.)

James Carville once famously quipped of Pennsylvania that it’s Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between. I’m from the Alabama part. People in my hometown like God, guns, deer hunting and the Pittsburgh Steelers (not necessarily in that order). Conservative Republicans have represented the region in the U.S. House of Representatives since the 1920s. The Democrats often don’t even bother to front a candidate.

So I’m interested to see what happens when same-sex marriage comes to my old stomping grounds. And it looks like it just might, thanks to a ruling by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III.

Jones ruled yesterday that all couples “deserve equal dignity in the realm of civil marriage.”

Speaking of the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, Jones was blunt. He wrote, “We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history.”

It’s unclear what will happen next. Pennsylvania’s marriage laws are pretty strict. You can’t just show up at the courthouse, get a license and get hitched. There is a three-day waiting period.

Jones’ ruling could be appealed. The state’s attorney general, a Democrat, has indicated that she has no interest in defending the law, but Gov. Tom Corbett, a Tea Party-style Republican, may feel differently. A higher court might end up putting the ruling on hold while it takes up the issue.

Jones’ decision, though, is in line with similar recent decisions in Oregon and Arkansas. In fact, marriage equality advocates are on something of a roll. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision striking down key portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, they’ve seen victory after victory.

What will this mean for all of my conservative friends in the Keystone State? Assuming Jones’ ruling is upheld, it means that same-sex couples will enjoy the same rights that opposite-sex couples often take for granted. If they want marriage, they will get it – and all of the benefits that come with it.

Aside from the intangible satisfaction of formalizing a relationship, same-sex couples will get things like hospital spousal visitation rights, joint property rights, child custody, survivors’ benefits, tax benefits and so on.

One thing they won’t get is some kind of magical power to make houses of worship bless their unions. We hear this scare talk from the Religious Right a lot. It’s worth reminding everyone that extending marriage to same-sex couples doesn’t affect churches at all. As long as we have a First Amendment, houses of worship will be free to determine who qualifies for their sacraments and who does not.

Massachusetts recently marked the 10-year anniversary of same-sex marriage in that state. How many members of the clergy there have been forced to preside at a same-sex ceremony? None. Zero. Zilch.

I hope Jones’ ruling is upheld, and I hope that same-sex couples in Pennsylvania soon start enjoying the same benefits my wife and I have taken advantage of for the past 22 years.

Last night I visited a Facebook page run by some people from my hometown. I was curious about what the residents there were thinking about this ruling. Sure enough, they were talking about it, and, much to my surprise, the vast majority expressed support. One woman, noting that her nephew has been in a same-sex relationship for years, said she looked forward to finally being able to attend his wedding.

It occurred to me that perhaps I have been unfair to the residents of my beloved home state. Times are changing, and cultural attitudes are evolving – even in the “Alabama part” of Pennsylvania.  

Imagine how that must terrify the Religious Right!

P.S. Judge Jones’ name may be familiar to you. There’s a reason for that: He wrote the excellent opinion in Kitzmiller v. Dover, Americans United’s successful challenge to “intelligent design” in a Pennsylvania school district. Jones was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush. I’d love to see him on the Supreme Court someday.